Authors: Lillian Beckwith
Bello is a digital only imprint of Pan Macmillan, established to breathe life into previously published classic books.
At Bello we believe in the timeless power of the imagination, of good story, narrative and entertainment and we want to use digital technology to ensure that many more readers can enjoy these books into the future.
We publish in ebook and Print on Demand formats to bring these wonderful books to new audiences.
About the author:
Lillian Comber wrote fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children under the pseudonym Lillian Beckwith. She is best known for her series of comic novels based on her time living on a croft in the Scottish Hebrides.
Beckwith was born in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, in 1916, where her father ran a grocery shop. The shop provided the background for her memoir
About My Father's Business
, a child's eye view of a 1920s family. She moved to the Isle of Skye with her husband in 1942, and began writing fiction after moving to the Isle of Man with her family twenty years later. She also completed a cookery book,
Secrets from a Crofter's Kitchen
Since her death, Beckwith's novel
A Shine of Rainbows
has been made into a film starring Aidan Quinn and Connie Nielsen, which in 2009 won âBest Feature' awards at the Heartland and Chicago Children's Film Festivals.
This book is dedicated to all my friends
The approximate pronunciation of the name âTearlaich' is âCharlac'. A âTystie' (pronounced âtisty') is a guillemot.
It was such a good-looking day; blue-skied and smiling with sunshine; tuneful with sandpipers, and with a shimmering breeze stirring the sea into foam-tipped ripples which, as they reached the shore, rose to throw themselves over the sharp-pointed rocks like white hoopla rings. The sea itself was busy with gannets diving, terns swooping and splashing and tysties bobbing, while between the outer islands there emerged the shapes of homeward-bound fishing boats, mistily distorted as if one was seeing them through fogged glass.
On the Bruach crofts early orchis grew sturdily among the struggling new grass, and in the boggy hollows infant reeds speared fresh and green above the scythe-beheaded tussocks of the previous year. There were still snow-filled corries among the dark hills, but as each day the light lengthened by âa hen's stride' the moors shed more and more of their winter brown like a partial moult, revealing patches of new spring green. The Bruach sheep stock, still heavy with lamb, fed greedily, indifferent to the honking ravens chaperoning their new brood; to the reciprocal calling of cuckoos and to the discursive twitterings of larks and pipits which were only now seeking suitable nesting sites.
May in Bruach was usually a good month, providing us with at least a few days of sun and calm, but this year the spell of good weather had come exceptionally early. Already the peats were cut and lying beside the bog awaiting the hot June sunshine which, hopefully, would dry them to almost coallike solidness; the potatoes had been planted and the oats sown and now we awaited the first green spikes of corn and the dark green leaves of the potatoes to appear above the soil. The byres had been cleaned; and the cattle had been de-loused, an undertaking which is not so disagreeable as it sounds since we merely shook louse-powder prodigally all over the cows, particularly in the area of the neck and behind the ears where the lice were most likely to breed, and rubbed it in vigorously. Then, as Erchy put it, âWe could just watch the spiteful wee buggers go mad with their dyin'.'
Outdoor work being so well advanced I, like my neighbours, was indulging in the usual frenzy of spring cleaning. Doormats which had been caked with winter mud had been beaten and were now lying well weighted down with boulders in the burn. Upstream of the doormats lay the hearth and bedroom rugs, similarly weighted, and there I intended they should stay until the swift-flowing water had restored the doormats to their normal ginger-brown shagginess and the hearth and bedroom rugs looked as if they had just come back from the cleaners. The earth dykes around my croft were draped with sheets bleaching in the sun; newly washed blankets hung from the clothes rope where they responded to the caress of the breeze which, as it dried them, teased their fibres into downy softness and filled them with the good fresh smell of pure Highland air.
Perhaps because sunshine is scarcer in the Hebrides we tended to assess its qualities seriously. Thus May was traditionally the best month for bleaching and blanket washing. The hot summer sun, if and when it came, was welcome for drying the peats, but it turned woollen blankets yellow and hurried the drying of linen. To bleach successfully one needed the slow-drying, spring sunshine. A sheet put out to bleach in June or July would need to be sluiced frequently with clean water to ensure it did not dry too quickly, and as clean water had to be carried from the well it was far too precious a commodity for such ministrations. So we made the most of any good May weather, leaving the spread sheets out over several days and nights to be soaked repeatedly by the abundant May dew and subsequently dried by its benign sunshine. When the time came to gather them in, even the most obstinate stains had disappeared and the sheets were almost eye-dazzling in their whiteness.
Such knowledge I had of course acquired since living and working with the Bruach crofters, for once they realized I was in earnest they were eager enough to teach me not just the essentials I needed to know and practise to survive the crofting life but the simpler more esoteric crofting lore. One of the most important things I had to learn was how to be âkind to myself' when lifting and carrying the many loads which in Bruach had to be carried on one's back because there was no other means of transportation. So well versed did I consider myself in this particular skill that, while visiting a mainland art gallery, I found myself looking appreciatively at Caravaggio's
Christ Bearing the Cross
and musing with irreverent practicality, âHe's not being kind to himself carrying it like that â¦ A crofter could have shown him a much easier way of doing it.â¦' By precept and example, sometimes by good-natured mocking of my mistakes, the crofters continued to teach me, and undoubtedly the assimilation of their tutoring enabled me to adapt far more easily to the crofting life than I might otherwise have done.
It was late in the afternoon now, time to give the hens their evening mash and almost time to begin preparing my own meal. But though it was not croft work I was involved with at the moment, I was loath to leave the task of giving the final coat of paint to a newly acquired but very second-hand chest of drawers which I had bought some time previously at a mainland auction and which I was refurbishing, ready to go into the spare bedroom. The bedroom itself was presently empty of furniture save for the bed, which had already been painted
, and the mattress which was reared on its side sunning itself before the wide-open window. The walls and ceiling had been repainted in a colour scheme of blue and white, and tomorrow I planned to scrub the floor and put everything back in place, re-hang the fresh-laundered curtains, replace the sun-bleached white bedspread and move in the newly painted chest of drawers. The rugs would not be dry for some days, but by then the room should be well aired and free from the smell of paint, ready for the rugs to go down and ready for the visitors I was soon expecting.
The chest had already been rubbed down and given its first two coats of paint while it was in the barn where it had stood since the carrier had delivered it, but rather than risk it being marred by hayseeds or chaff I had brought it into the porch of the cottage for its final painting. I wielded my brush as painstakingly as time permitted, working into joints and crevices, covering up the last traces of its life of abuse, and when I stood up, the painting finished, I was pleased enough with the result. After putting away the tin of paint, I went round to the back of the cottage where I wiped the paintbrush first on a boulder and then more thoroughly on a patch of rough grass before immersing it in a jar of turpentine. That done, I wiped my paint-sticky hands on a turpentine-soaked rag and, bending down, likewise cleaned my hands on the grass. This was another simple crofter trick: another way of saving water and paper and even rags, all of which were scarce in Bruach. As much as possible one used grass for cleaning, but even so one did not pull up a bunch of grass to clean one's hands; one simply dragged them several times through the growing grass, which was not only a much easier and quicker method of cleaning but an infinitely more effective one. The only time a crofter pulled grass for cleaning was when he was using it as toilet paper.
Going into the kitchen I prepared the mash for the hens, and while thus engaged I heard a flapping of wings and the questioning cluck of a hen. Turning quickly to investigate, I saw to my utter dismay that Blackie, one of the tamer members of my flock of poultry, had become impatient for her evening feed and had escaped from the hen run. She had made her way to the door of the cottage where, no doubt hearing the telltale sounds of mash being mixed and wanting to urge on the proceedings, she had flown up on top of my newly painted chest and was even now stamping it with the skimble-skamble of her feet.
I shouted and lunged towards her, brandishing the wooden mixing spoon, and with a panic-stricken squawk she flew outside, shedding several of her feathers as she did so. In her wake the black feathers floated lazily down to settle on the wet paint. I picked them off, silently inveighing against the despoiler and against my own mismanagement, since if I had not kept the hens waiting for their mash it was unlikely Blackie would have become so impatient. Though the feathers had left barely a trace on the paintwork the top of the chest was in a fearful mess and I decided that the best thing to do was to try and brush out the marks as quickly as possible before the paint began to dry. With this in mind I rushed off to the hen run, gave the hens their feed, ensured they were all safely penned in behind the wire netting, rushed back to the house and took up my paintbrush once more. My own meal would have to wait until the painting was finished, just as Bonny would have to wait to be milked and given her reward of a potach. I set to work with resolute haste and again when I had finished I was not too dissatisfied with the result, though Blackie's skidding claws had marked the chest with easily perceptible scratches which I knew ought to have been left to dry and then rubbed down with sandpaper before being repainted. But I could not face the thought of starting the whole process again. Already I was beginning to begrudge the time it had all taken, since by temperament I am a slap-happy painter just as I am slap-happy at most tasks, always wanting to get them done with speed rather than skill or, as my grandmother used to reprove me, âAlways in too much of a rush to get a job jobbed.'